LILY AND GENEROSO’S 2017 TOP TEN FILM LIST, SUPPLEMENTAL FILMS, BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT, AND BEST REP FILM EXPERIENCE

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We dedicate this top ten list to David Pendleton, the brilliant and lovely co-curator of the Harvard Film Archive, who passed away on November 6th at the age of 53. We wholeheartedly feel that our education as cinephiles was enhanced greatly by not only the quality of programming that he presented to us at the archive, but also from the film knowledge that we gleaned from him before each screening from the podium and after the screenings in the hallway. We miss you.  


In 2017, we were fortunate to have had a greater access to international film screenings than ever before, thanks in large part to the efforts of a few organizations here in Los Angeles who were committed to bringing the finest titles that they could find to the film community here from abroad, and it was this unprecedented ability to see foreign titles that became a large reason as to why our list is so heavily weighted towards international cinema. We would like to thank the good people at Acropolis Cinema, AFI Fest, the South East European Film Festival, Cinema Italian Style, Canada Now, Cambodian Town Film Festival, and Recent Spanish Cinema Los Angeles for their diligent work in bringing the best contemporary world cinema to our city.

If we had to isolate two major themes that were indicative of this year’s selections, they would the creative process and the suffocating nature of modern industrialization. This year there are multiple films that capture the experience of artistic experimentation and creation. And, there are multiple films that contrast nature to modern civilization. Appearing at the top of our list this year is a film that excelled in incorporating and expanding on these two themes, an exceptionally ambitious and complex work that immediately set the standard for exceptional film for this year.  


1. By the Time it Gets Dark (Dao khanong) / Thailand / dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong
Countering the current banal trend towards overly self-aware film referencing that many consider viable postmodernist cinema is Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By The Time it Gets Dark, which has no novelty in its allusions to the history of cinema and yet, manages to maintain a lightness throughout its discourse on the role of cinema in capturing and retelling collective memories and realities. The film begins with a scene set in 1976, and a real event that is currently being suppressed in history books by the Thai government, Bangkok’s Thammasat University massacre, where a large number of student protesters were executed by the Thai military. This piece of history comes to the attention of Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), a filmmaker who locates a survivor of the killings, a writer named Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), who Ann has invited to a secluded country home for an extended conversation. In this setting, we encounter another woman, who becomes a recurring character throughout the film, who drifts from job to job. After Ann interviews Taew, we are introduced to an handsome actor named Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri) who is filming a more commercial film than the one that Ann is currently creating about the Thammasat University killings. With each of these characters’ stories, Suwichakornpong shows a different perspective and context of film history and its motivations. There is an ode to cinema and a chance for transformation there is also an undercurrent of how film was viewed during different political and social climates within the timeline of the progression of cinema itself. The director, in order to accomplish this ambitious dissection of cinema, blurs the reality of what is in the film or to be specific, the films within the films, to stress what is most likely a change of character or outcome that has been mandated for purposes of entertainment or sadly because of the failing of a nation’s collective memory about a real event that has been altered by media itself.

 



2. Loveless (Nelyubov) / Russia / dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev
We have been fans of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s work since his 2003 feature film debut, The Return, and since that feature, he has continued surpassing each previous work in quality. It has been three years since his previous, highly regarded film, Leviathan, so we were beyond excited to see his new film, Loveless, the 2017 Jury Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival. In Loveless, Zvyagintsev follows Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), a soon to be divorced couple, whose constant battling has caused severe emotional trauma to their young son Alexey, who in the midst of his parents’ other ongoing dalliances has gone missing, which is not even noticed by his parents until days later. Loveless then becomes a film that plays with its audience by putting you in the position of the argumentative couple, who seem more concerned with their anger towards one another and seemingly unfulfilling affairs than the welfare of their own child. During the AFI Fest screening’s question and answer session with Zvyagintsev, the director deflected assertions that were made by the moderator that his film is political and clarified that his feature is one that intends to shine light on the social and moral imperatives of a modern Russia that is quickly on the verge of breakdown. Alexey, who only occupies a tiny percentage of the film’s running time, becomes a brilliantly conceived symbol of a generation of Russian citizens who are fanatically striving to retain their own youth, which is the most precious commodity in the face of an uncertain future.

 

 

3. Sieranevada / Romania / dir. Cristi Puiu
Lary (Mimi Branescu) and his wife, Laura (Catalina Moga) begin Cristi Puiu’s film trying to get out of a traffic situation on a busy street in Bucharest. This all too familiar scene of urban misery deliberately plays out slowly so that you can take in every single moment of frustration that this situation can provide. Once Lary and Laura are freed from the car trap, you learn that they are off to mourn the passing of Lary’s father with his family, who will now become the human version of traffic jam they couple just escaped. The predominance of Puiu’s stiflingly grand film takes place in the apartment where Lary’s family has congregated, and over the next few hours you will witness their rants on political situations that have been gleaned through personal experiences and to a greater degree, various nefarious websites. You will then see the seemingly trapped guests drag in their friends with their miseries into the fray, whist all await the priest who will consecrate this beleaguered affair before dinner can be served. Puiu has reimagined contemporary Romania in Sieranevada as an ant farm where the inhabitants disgustedly move around their glass cage, expelling their frustrations with neither truth or faith serving as a guiding force to lessen their anger. No real answers are given to any of the concerns of our grieving clan, except perhaps during one short scene when Lary and Laura are accosted by neighbors when they venture outside to try to move their car. It is at this very moment that you begin to understand that at least the dysfunction they see at home, as oppressive as it is there, is infinitely better than the conflicts that exist outside of the familiar familial box. For the almost three hour running time, you are transfixed by every conversation that occurs in Sieranevada, and you watch, sometimes in disbelief, at how these frenetic moments are sewn together by Puiu.

 

 

4. The Workshop (L’Atelier) / France / dir. Laurent Cantet
In The Workshop, longtime collaborators Laurent Cantet and Robin Campillo deceptively set up a scenario where you expect a beneficent teacher to help needy adolescents understand themselves through the beauty of writing, which could potentially be extremely sanguine and unrealistic like so many “teacher changing student movies” à la Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. However, Cantet and Campillo weave together a film that gets to the essence of writing. Here, writing is not a lofty art form that brings some level of dramatic catharsis, but rather a way to explore and accept one’s own motivations and flaws. Cantet and Campillo use a bait and switch technique that plays on established cinematic clichés in the order to create an interesting narrative, but more so to illustrate the flaws in Hollywood’s films, which stress unreal expectations for a saccharine ending. Cantet and Campillo purposefully lead the viewer through their main character Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), a highly intelligent but brash and combative young man, on several potential clichéd thriller endings in line with the thriller that the students in the workshop are tasked to write. The selection of any of these potential thriller endings for the film is irrelevant, as each ending option only goes as far as to clarify the true purpose of the film: the self-realization that comes through in writing is more important than the craft of writing itself. The Workshop is an expertly conceived film that deftly builds its thesis by confronting the assumptions made by audiences, who might project their own expectations about the beneficence and motivations of teachers and students based on Cantet’s 2008 Palme d’Or winning film, The Class.

 

 

5. Personal Shopper / France / dir. Olivier Assayas
Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a young American woman living in France who seems adrift as she goes through the day to day tasks of her titular position, working for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) a vulgar parody of an American actress. We see Maureen in a state of perpetual limbo due to recent passing of her twin brother, Lewis, who has promised his sister a sign from beyond, which Maureen eagerly awaits for, and witnesses early in the film while staying at the abandoned house of her deceased brother. Maureen’s supernatural connections with Lewis do little for Maureen in terms of coming to grips with her loss, and so she continues to glide through her life with no connection to both her boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger), a computer programmer working abroad in Oman, who Maureen communicates with only through Skype, and Kyra, who sends purchasing requests to Maureen via phone. The aforementioned detached voices, including a new one in the form of an unknown text-messenger, add to this state of lifelessness we see in Maureen, who becomes somewhat of an apparition herself, a phantom who secretly parades around the apartment of her employer whilst wearing her bosses new expensive garments. Though some elements exist, Personal Shopper never operates on the level of standard genre horror film, though the film does contain moments of suspense through Maureen’s reactions to the mysterious and threatening texts that she receives. Assayas uses the combination of the unreal and real to solidify his thesis, a thesis that does more than simply examine the grief associated with physical death: it’s a look at not only the emptiness that coincides with that loss, but also the loss of physical connection due to global economics and subsequent distance between people in their methods of communication in our digital age.


6. Western / Germany | Bulgaria / dir. Valeska Grisebach
Valeska Grisebach’s first film in over a decade, Western, which was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is a surprising examination of the conflicting attitudes towards and evolving definitions of masculinity that are derived from predetermined notions of contrasting cultures. In the film, a team of German workers is sent to the outskirts of a small village in Bulgaria to build a hydroelectric power plant. Amongst the team, we are immediately introduced to Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), who is said to have been a French Foreign Legionnaire who has grown tired of war. Even though he does have some camaraderie with his German colleagues, Meinhard gravitates towards the villagers near his worksite, and he attempts to gain favor within the village as to earn a place there for some semblance of permanence, but perhaps even more so to exist within a community that eschews the trappings of self-serving aggression that historically is attached to Western practices of conquest and expansion. Through the use of a primarily non-professional group of actors, Western accomplishes its ambitious conceptual goals with a documentary style that allows the viewer seemingly unfettered access to Meinhard and the world around him. Grisebach has created, for the central character of her film, a complex and compelling study, as Meinhard’s former existence as a Legionnaire is an excellent device to explain his innate ability to acclimate to different interpretations of masculinity because of the international participation that exists within the French Foreign Legion. Given Meinhard’s desire to be part of a new community, combined with his ability as a Legionnaire to adapt to foreign cultures, will he be able to establish his value, which he believes comes from his ability to commit violence, but, in doing so, will his actions go against acceptable levels of aggression within the community he wishes to serve?

 



7. A Ciambra / Italy / dir. Jonas Carpignano
In the final scene of Mediterranea, Jonas Carpignano’s impressive feature film debut, we see the protagonist of the film, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), an African refugee who, since arriving in southern Italy, has tried to play it straight, entering a party at the home of his connected orange orchard boss. This simple act of entry by Ayiva, symbolizes his acceptance of the criminal code that governs his region. When we begin Carpignano’s follow up film, A Ciambra, we are reintroduced to Ayiva’s young friend from Mediterranea, Pio (Pio Amato), an illiterate adolescent from a Romani community who peddles stolen items. In A Ciambra, Pio lives with his family and does what he can to help out, including the aforementioned small-time thievery and stealing electricity for his home so that his family can dodge bills they cannot afford. As for Pio and Ayiva, despite their ethnic allegiances, they have become close friends with Ayiva assuming a protective role over Pio, as Pio’s older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) begins serving time in prison, a place where he begins to look at the ethnic divide in a different way. What we admire the most about A Ciambra is the film’s unwillingness to compromise its realistic vision of a Romani community in contemporary southern Italy and how that community functions in a static environment between established Italian nationals and a new migrant group, African immigrants, who draw some of the ire away from the Romanis. Though by genre definition, this is a crime film, we have come to realize that A Ciambra is more of a film about the stigma attached to immigrant groups from outside and from inside of their communities. We see three groups in the film: the Calabrians, the Romani, and the Africans, and we learn their perceptions of each other and themselves from their interactions.

 

 

8. Bright Sunshine In ( Un beau soleil intérieur) / France / dir. Claire Denis
In Bright Sunshine In, Juliette Binoche plays Isabelle, an older visual artist whose success in her career fails to translate into her inter-personal relationships. On the surface, Bright Sunshine In looks like an exploration on fleeting and turbulent love, an exercise on a quintessentially French premise, but Claire Denis uses love and relationships to form an intricate conceit about the life, interactions, and career of an aging female creator. On one level, Bright Sunshine In is about how an older female actress presents herself to the people and characters she meets in life, on stage, or in cinema impacts the course of her interactions. Throughout the film, Binoche comedically dresses as a caricature of a young French woman. She’s always in a miniskirt that barely meets the top of her audacious thigh-high boots, and whenever we see Isabelle’s outfits in Bright Sunshine In, we see a manifestation of Binoche the actress’s and Isabelle the artist’s need to prove to outside eyes that they still can carry the energy, beauty, and vitality of their youth. As much as the film is about the aging actress, it is also about Claire Denis herself as a female director navigating through the archetypal male characters in French cinema and the male actors who play them, which is why the film must end with scenes from Denis’s longtime collaborator Alex Descas and the iconic Gérard Depardieu. Bright Sunshine In appears like a lighter film for Denis, but it is a completely exemplary one because of its ability to show the creative process and experience for aging women in cinema who have seen the past and contributed their own work to it, but want to continue to progress, and for that it is a film that only Denis can present because her grace, honesty, and perceptiveness are evident throughout.

 

 

9. Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres) / France | Belgium / dirs. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Before we say anything else about Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan, let us say this: it’s not perfect by any means, but it is one of the most conceptually and visually daring films we saw at AFI Fest 2017. Cattet and Forzani’s latest blood-soaked feature is, at times, an outstanding display of ideas that draws visual and aural conventions from everything from low budget Euro-crime films of the 1970s to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s landmark novel of the same name that re-defined police stories, Let the Corpses Tan uses a violent heist as the galvanizing moment in the narrative, but the film is less about why the crime was committed and more about what each character sees, feels (in a tactile way rather than an emotional way), and hears as he or she has to deal with the consequences. As thus, there is an overwhelmingly impressive dedication by Cattet and Forzani to construct meticulous shots of the actions, big and small, of each character, which makes every scene in the film palpable. We can hear and see the paint that Luce (Elina Löwensohn), the owner of the home that doubles as the film’s stage, shoots onto a canvas. We can feel the sun beating down on the characters as they move around Luce’s sparse and desert-like property in Corsica. We see and hear shots fired from each perspective. We can even smell the pee that is part of Luce’s performance art. This action-focused approach bypasses any character development and exploration, but keeps you fully engaged because you would like to see, hear, and feel what is next, especially because Cattet and Forzani never present a less than intriguing scene. As part of the sensory explosion in Let the Corpses Tan, the directors include scenes from surreal performance artwork from Luce, and these moments emphasize why you should see the film: Let the Corpses Tan is a showcase of how the motifs that we know from genre cinema, when included and expanded in similar and contrasting contexts, can form their own kind of performance that is analogous to Luce’s strange, but also reference heavy, performances.

Let the Corpses Tan is a dazzling spectacle, and even if there are no characters and no firm narrative to hold onto, you’ll be mesmerized by all the sounds and images of liquid gold slathered on bodies, lamb meat being grabbed, bodies being beaten, and gunshots fired in close range and through windows interspersed with close ups of sweaty, furtive glances. As you can tell from that description, some of the scenes in the collage of Let the Corpses Tan may be overly masturbatory or fetishistic, which without key characters are made even more so, but as long as you give up trying to understand why this is all happening before you, you’ll have fun, too much fun experiencing this film.



 

10. On The Beach At Night Alone (Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja) / South Korea / dir. Hong Sang-soo
There were three features directed by Hong Sang-soo this year, which is a fairly standard output by the prolific auteur, who uses a different method in each film to examine his own personal issues, which has also been a mark of his career. One of the most candid talents working in cinema, his 2017 output, Claire’s Camera, The Day After, and On The Beach At Night Alone, are all different artistic treatments of Hong’s much-publicized affair with actress, Kim Min-hee, who, like her married paramour Hong, has been vilified by the South Korean press, in a similar way that Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini had been demonized some seventy years ago after their affair became public, and also as Bergman and Rossellini were able to do, Hong and Kim’s collaboration has led to some magnificent pieces of art, which brings us to On The Beach At Night Alone. The most structurally ambitious and affecting of Hong’s films this year, On The Beach at Night Alone begins in Hamburg, where Kim portrays Young-hee, an actress who has just departed South Korea after having an affair with a famous director. Kim is in Germany visiting a divorced friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), and the pair peacefully wander through the streets, shops, and parks of Hamburg, and in one funny scene, they even dine with a German friend where they engage painful conversation of poorly spoken English. Though this scene of misspoken words, combined with the redundancy of phrases is seemingly there for comic relief, it mostly exists as a harbinger for the final two thirds of the film that take place in South Korea, where a reunion of sorts with Kim’s director-lover occurs that stresses the power of language and the brutal honesty contained within words to convey pain. As strong as the construction is for On the Beach at Night Alone, its power primarily comes the emotionally complex performance by Kim Min-hee, who seems to have channeled all of the negativity that has been directed at her by people responding to the real-life controversy connected to her off-screen affair with Hong into her impressive range of abilities as an actress.  

 

 

SUPPLEMENTAL LIST

My Father’s Wings (Babamin Kanatlari) / Turkey/ dir. Kıvanç Sezer
An impressive debut feature from the Turkish-born, but Italian-educated Kivanç Sezer about his country’s worker safety issues that have been worsened by earthquakes in Turkey and subsequent shortages of properly built homes, My Father’s Wings uses as its narrative engine the story of master builder İbrahim (Menderes Samancilar), who labors at a construction site where payments have become nebulous and is in dire need of funds to support his family. İbrahim works at the site with his nephew Yusuf (Musab Ekici), a brash young man who is eager to climb the ladder of success and become his own boss. A pensive drama that is framed in the Italian neorealist tradition, My Father’s Wings provides the viewer with a glimpse into the growing crisis of housing demand leading to an exploitative situation for low wage builders who are trying to maintain a balance between survival and dignity. The flawless performances by Samancilar and Ekici create complementary perspectives on life for two different generations, and combined they form characters that express our own concerns and sometimes naïve optimism in our changing society. This is the first part of a projected trilogy that Sezer hopes to make that centers around the building of this property in the suburbs of Istanbul. We sat down with the director for an interview that you can read here.

 

 

Pendular / Brazil / dir. Júlia Murat
Whereas Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition is solely focused on what it means to see and show art from a creator’s and an audience’s perspective, Pendular is more self-contained in its discourse on the reconciliation between space and body. At the start of the film, we see a couple, the woman, a dancer, and the man, a sculptor, forming a line of separation in an abandoned factory that doubles as their home and studio. From this image of the line that splits the man and the woman’s working spaces, we immediately understand that invasion of space will become an issue—for him, the space needed to build his sculptures, and for her, the physical space of her body, the key tool of her work. As Pendular proceeds, the dancer and the sculptor battle to expand their respective physical spaces of performance/creation, and as a result, we see what happens when their need for expansion and creation in their work bleeds into the confines of their human relationship. Beyond our sculptor and dancer, there is a third creator who also wants space: the filmmaker. In conversations in Pendular, there are constant references to mainstream cinematic language and video game play. Then, in one brief moment, we see the dancer move towards the couple’s personal collection of films, which contains multiple works from Tsai Ming-liang and Claire Denis. All of these references to external media serve to try to relate the experience of the sculptor and dancer to known properties for the audience, but all of these references are interruptive and brief, almost in a jarring way, showing the filmmaker’s own battle for narrative space in the film itself in order to set cinematic language anchors for the viewer. Thus, Pendular emerges as an exploration into the experimentation and the struggle to find harmony between three artists: dancer, sculptor, and filmmaker, and in the closing, when the three finally come together, the outcome is a hypnotizing visual exhibit of space, body, and movement. Given the intricacy required to convey the concepts in Pendular, the film de-personalizes its central characters, but more moments of their personal interactions would have given more fluidity and spontaneity to the film. Regardless, Pendular ranks high on this list because it underscores the ability of cinema to provide a dialogue about art, of multiple forms, with time, images, and sound.

 


Hermia and Helena / Argentina / dir. Matías Piñeiro
The latest of Piñeiro’s ongoing “Shakespeareads” series of films based on The Bard’s heroines, Hermia and Helena is a charming, but no less poignant repurposing of the characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream taken over international borders. We begin our film with Carmen (María Villar) who is nearing the end of her arts fellowship in New York City and is giving practical academic, and not so practical romantic advice to her friend in Argentina, Camilla (Agustina Muñoz), who will shortly be switching places with Carmen at the university, a switch that may be packaged with the added bonus of an administrator named Lukas (Keith Poulson), a hipster doofus and notorious lothario, who has been spending time with Carmen during her appointment. Once Camilla arrives in New York, she takes advantage of the always amourous Lukas, while she attempts to balance a precarious mix of translating A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a search for her biological father and her long lost lover, and a preoccupation with whomever has been sending postcards during a cross-country roadtrip to Carmen’s apartment. The scenes contained in Hermia and Helena bounce freely from the stories going on in both Buenos Aires and New York, so in one way, Piñeiro’s film has a formal structure, but it is not necessarily a chronological one, which allows for the individual parts of the film to have impact on their own, like the scene where Camilla meets her father, yet at the same time they reflect on one another’s importance in the narrative. The effect allows you to delve into any part of the film without having to rationalize its place in the story. You can also view the film after digging up and digesting your Cliff Notes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from junior year of high school to refresh your memory of the play’s characters to draw comparisons, but it is not necessarily needed to enjoy this refreshingly alive film, which is as much about distance as it is about star crossed lovers.

 


Hello Destroyer / Canada / dir. Kevan Funk
One of the most impressive films in quite a while on the systematic cultivation of violence and the pervasive nature of sports on a society, Kevan Funk’s unrelentingly merciless feature debut, Hello Destroyer, features a powerful performance from Jared Abrahamson as Tyson Burr, a rookie forward for the imaginary Prince George Warriors junior team. Funk painstakingly follows Tyler’s horrific journey through an athletic system where he is first encouraged to by coaches and teammates to be aggressive on the ice, which then becomes a story of infamy as Tyler is subsequently ostracized for his actions during a game that lead to him permanently injuring an opposing team’s player. The film exposes the deep flaws of a sports culture that consistently enforces an ideal of teamwork, an idea that crumbles easily once the unspoken rules of the sport are broken. The structure and tone of Hello Destroyer is courageously uncompromised as director Funk never allows for even one positive moment to distract you away from the film’s dour central message, one that stresses the pressures that are internalized by a young person when they enter the arena to play their country’s most coveted sport and the life-changing ramifications that arise once the public feels that their beloved institution has been violated. Given the realistic treatment of the subject matter, combined with the raw performances in Funk’s film, it was impossible not to think of real-life NHL players Todd Bertuzzi and Marty McSorley, whose entire careers and lives were forever altered by their one moment on the ice where their aggression went too far past the normally prescribed violence that is expected by the fans and management of their sport.

 

 

The Girl Without Hands (La jeune fille sans mains) / France / dir. Sébastien Laudenbach
Amazingly for the second year in a row, we have been presented with a impressed feature that has been written, directed, and animated by one person alone. In 2016, director Nick DiLiberto released the film that he labored over for four years to hand-illustrate over 60,000 frames for, Nova Seed, his homage to the 2-D animated sci-fi/fantasy films of the 1980s, and this year, celebrated animator Sébastien Laudenbach wore as many hats as DiLiberto and faithfully adapted the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, The Girl Without Hands. The girl (Anaïs Demoustier) has chosen the pastoral setting of an apple tree near her father’s mill as her place of rest, but that place is forsaken when her father (Olivier Broche) makes a Faustian deal with the Devil (Philippe Laudenbach), which costs him not only his apple tree, but his daughter as well. The Devil further instructs the greedy father to cut off his own daughter’s hands, which he is heartbroken to do, but he obliges in fear of further retaliation. Without her hands, the girl slowly crawls into the woods where she is saved from drowning by an earth mother spirit (Elina Löwensöhn) who subsequently shows the girl to a castle where our wounded heroine meets a prince (Jéremie Elkaïm) who falls in with her and who makes for his new love, a pair of golden hands, but our story is far from over. Utilizing a flowing impressionistic style of watercolor strokes that form more than just a pretty effect on the visuals, Sébastien Laudenbach achieves a softness that impeccably compliments the naturalistic elements of the story, as this particular adaptation of the Grimm fairytale is indeed more than a simplistic hero versus villain story, as it becomes a parable about the pure redemptive power of the natural state against man’s need to be in conflict with that state.

 

 

Turn Left Turn Right (បត់ឆ្វេងបត់ស្តាំ) / Cambodia | USA / dir. Douglas Seok

When Turn Left Turn Right begins, we see Kanitha (Kanitha Tith), a quintessentially modern looking woman, decked out in her royal blue cocktail dress. Kanitha has a raw, almost childlike intensity to her stare and stance as she wanders quietly through the ruins of Angkor Wat while Khmer era music plays in the background. As the screen fades to black, the song continues, and you are presented with a title card announcing the beginning of “Track Two” and then the image of actress Dy Saveth, the star of the international 1970 fantasy hit, The Snake Man, and one of the few stars remaining from the Golden Age of Khmer Cinema, dancing to the same song that introduced us to Kanitha, who we now see watching the video of Saveth. Kanitha is taking a break from her unglamorous job as a waitress in a rock club, where she slightly bobs her head to the music while going through the motions of work, before ending her shift and riding home to fall asleep in her work clothes on a mat next to her sleeping grandfather. End of track two. Kanitha has two jobs: one as a waitress in the aforementioned nightclub and another as a hotel clerk, but she must still live with her grandfather and mother, who continue to badger Kanitha about her unmarried status and her lack of desire to create a family of her own. In the eyes of her family, Kanitha’s lifestyle may appear selfish, but her desire to remain outside of traditional roles appears justified when we witness the economic struggles of her friends and their lives in the marketplace. When her grandfather becomes ill, Kanitha and her mother discuss using their small amount of savings just so Kanitha’s grandfather can be treated in a hospital. Faced with such a grim financial future, Kanitha continues to work her jobs, but the dancing that once only occurred in her dreams, begins to find an unwelcome home in the reality of her day to day urban existence. It is only through her trips into the natural settings of waterways and her friend’s farm that Kanitha can finally feel unencumbered by the world around her enough to share her desire for freedom with others. In his short, but complete sixty-eight minute second feature, director Douglas Seok creates a compelling and elegant visual narrative that intertwines scenes from a rapidly changing modern life with glimpses into an era of Cambodia that has long since passed. Seok also mixes in contemporary and Khmer era vintage songs, minimal dialog, and physical expression, which altogether with the images, allows his protagonist to delve deeply into a dream state without ever losing focus of the film’s essential central construct of creating a character whose choices are influenced by the conflict between her own desire to live a simpler life because of the complexity of today and the expectations and needs of the people she loves who are fundamentally connected to traditional values from a time that no longer exists.

 

                        MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) / Chile / dir. Sebastián Lelio
During the Q&A with lead actress, Daniela Vega, after the AFI screening of Sebastián Lelio’s ultimately disappointing new feature, A Fantastic Woman, a clue was given as to why the film failed to create an emotional connection with us, despite an intense performance from the newcomer Vega. As she described her feelings towards reading the script that Lelio sent her for A Fantastic Woman, Vega uttered the following line, “I was fifty pages into the script, and it was all about my character Marina’s love interest, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), so, I had some second thoughts.” In the cut of the film that we saw, the character of Orlando barely has ten minutes of screentime, so we have to wonder if Lelio once intended to create a much more thorough portrait of the relationship between Vega’s character, Marina Vidal, and Orlando so that the audience would better understand Marina feelings for her partner and her state of mind when he passes away. Instead of witnessing that relationship first hand to empathize with Marina, we only see scenes where Marina is upset by Orlando’s family as they deny her the right to mourn Orlando and where she practices boxing to vent her frustration. In A Fantastic Woman, we only get dramatic devices to represent Marina; we get no character examination, which Lelio is more than capable of, as seen in his widely celebrated film Gloria. Another rift between the viewer and any emotional connection comes by way of the failing of the editing style, which removes space during scenes where Marina’s emotions could be absorbed by the audience in favor of a cut to the next scene. Much respect has to go to Vega in her first lead role in a motion picture, and we feel that the worst failing of A Fantastic Woman was its missed opportunity to capitalize on the actress’s raw talent. Because of the film’s shallow character construction and rapid editing, we only get glimpses of Vega’s abilities—we never see them fully exhibited. We both highly regard Lelio’s previous feature, Gloria, which was a top ten film for us in 2014, and we were very disappointed that A Fantastic Woman was not given the same level of breathing room and character development that made Lelio’s previous film so affecting.

 

                                         
                   BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE   

Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2015, we attended a screening of a bizarre 70s exploitation film called, The Sexorcists. That night we got in line early as we had never been to the Silent Film Theater on Fairfax, and it was there where we met Monty Lewis, a gregarious and epically knowledgeable lover of cinema (and comicbooks). Monty was the first person to actually welcome us to the city, and that night at Cinefamily, he ran down a list of the numerous locations in L.A. where one could see great rep house fare, and for that we are eternally grateful. Sadly, Monty unexpectedly passed away on July 2nd at the age of 45. We both miss our chats in line with Monty before the films, and his booming laugh from the back row of the theater. So, before we offer up our favorite experiences in the rep houses in Los Angeles from 2017, we just want say thanks again to Monty for extending his knowledge and humor to us.

We are now midway through our third year as cinephiles here in Los Angeles, a city that up until the last few years was never widely regarded as being a real competitor to New York City in terms of its ability to present as eclectic an array of older titles on the big screen in repertory houses. These days though, on any given night in Los Angeles, you have not only the potential of seeing lost gems that you may have never seen before, but also the fortune of seeing them with the film’s director and stars, who are more than happy to regale you with stories from the film’s production, issues with certain prima donnas, or why some suit thought that a revisionist western starring a young Robert Duvall as Jesse James wouldn’t be worth a real ad push. We were so fortunate to have had a wealth of such moments in 2017 that choosing just one is almost impossible as we are not only judging the film, but that experience combining the film screening with hearing from these legendary talents.  

There was the night when the great Czech New Wave director Ivan Passer, who was as sharp as ever at 84 years old, showed up at the New Beverly to discuss his role in Fireman’s Ball, which he co-wrote with director, Milos Forman, or the Saturday evening double feature of La Vallée and More at The Aero in Santa Monica with director Barbet Schroeder and actress Bulle Ogier, whom Generoso has admired since seeing her decades earlier in Jacques Rivette’s 1969 masterpiece, L’ Amour Fou. We also spent a brilliant summer afternoon, again at the Aero, with director Bertrand Tavernier after he screened his massively underrated 2002 film, Safe Conduct. That day he spoke openly about his admiration for the filmmakers who worked for the French Resistance in World War Two. We loved seeing and hearing Jacqueline Bisset at the UCLA Film Archive discuss her bizarre experiences, most notably her being taken by boat to a deserted island, which led to her being cast in John Huston’s Under The Volcano. There’s also the time when actor Bruce Davison’s gave the crowd a spot-on imitation of Burt Lancaster, who Davison starred with in Ulzana’s Raid, which screened at the New Bev, or the lovely way that director Philip Kaufman thanked film critic Stephen Farber for championing Kaufman’s woefully underappreciated revisionist western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, when the film was released to lukewarm reviews after its initial release in 1972. We were so taken by that conversation that we transcribed the entire talk, and it was published on Ink 19.   

So, if it has to come down to one repertory moment for us this year, that would have to be when screen legend, Martin Landau, appeared at the Egyptian Theater after a screening of North By Northwest back in January, which was only a few months before he passed away at the age of 88. The actor arrived directly from a meeting held at the Hollywood branch of the Actors Studio, which Landau headed until his passing. Landau seemed so excited to address the crowd and was in rare form that afternoon, as he gleefully explained in detail his process when working with the late Mr. Hitchcock. Landau went into detail on his reasoning that went into his interpretation of the character of Leonard, whom he portrayed in the film as gay at a time when such things were simply not done in Hollywood. The actor then spoke of his unique preparation for his multi-faceted performance in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Generoso’s favorite film of Landau’s long career. The conversation never felt rushed that day, as it sometimes does when conversations of this type are done on a day when the venue has multiple screenings—no, Landau took complete advantage of that moment at the Egyptian as he was so giving with his answers. Even though he was in his late 80s, the actor spoke enthusiastically about his craft, and we will forever appreciate the knowledge dispensed to us from such a fine actor who enjoyed a such a long and distinguished career.

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Lily and Generoso Fierro at AFI Fest 2016

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Even though this was our second year attending, it is still sometimes difficult to believe that the American Film Institute Festival transpires in the seamless way that it does each year. An event that is entirely free for all who wish to attend, AFI Fest features films from around the world, which are usually accompanied by stars and directors galore who stay after screenings to discuss their work and to answer audience questions. The event is administered by an endless team of happy volunteers and staff who even make the process of waiting in line an efficient one by handing out numeric placeholder tickets so that you can exit the line to eat for thirty minutes or so; and, those numbered tickets also work well in quelling the usual social dilemma of endless morons in line in front of you who decide to let in twenty or so of their friends who show up a few minutes before doors open to go in ahead of you. This version of line organization is no small feat of administration, we’ll have you know, as we have seen such line-cutting indiscretions in the Northeast lead to countless screaming matches and even odd public displays of the pugilistic arts. Not sure if folks in Los Angeles would go toe to toe over a spot in line, but we find that these things are best left as a mystery.

We had a wonderful time during the 2015 festival because, even though we ended up reviewing the event, we mostly spent our time running from screenings into more screenings armed with a bag of free tickets for U.S. premieres of films from directors we greatly admire such as Jacques Audiard, Arnaud Desplechin, Hong Sang-soo, and Hirokazu Koreeda, and in terms of directing talent, AFI Fest 2016 was shaping up to be another fine year, especially considering that they were able to screen this year’s Palme d’Or winning film at Cannes, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion winner,The Woman Who Left, from Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, and Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, the winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. This year’s AFI Fest was also able to acquire the most recent effort from the always entertainingly self-destructive talents of Hong Sang-soo, whose film Yourself and Yours had the love and frenzy you expect from him, and Paul Verhoeven, who presented his much heralded and controversial new film, Elle.

In total, we saw twenty new features (and one amazing retro screening of David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster with the director himself and star, Lily Tomlin, in attendance) at this year’s AFI Fest, which surpassed last year’s total watching by seven films. This ability to see such a staggering amount of films was partially made possible by the wonderful pre-festival press screenings at the AFI main campus, which allowed us to preview many of the films participating in the “New Auteurs” section this time around. These New Auteur screenings outside of the festival allowed us extra time in our festival schedule, which we filled up by conducting interviews with the directors of a few of the films that we enjoyed (links to the interviews are contained in the short reviews below) and attending the documentary panel and even the gala screening and after party for Elle, where we chatted with Paul Verhoeven and his wife, Martine, and where Generoso blew his one and only chance to speak with one of his all time favorite actresses, Isabelle Huppert. Believe us, he has regretted this every day since.

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Lily Fierro with director Paul Verhoeven at the Elle screening after party

We’ll get deeper into other extracurricular activities such as the award ceremony later in this article, but let’s get to the films that we were lucky enough to have seen this year.

The film reviews below are presented in order based on their rating score (that we define on a scale of one to ten stars). The highest rated films stand at the top of the list, and the lowest rated films sit at the bottom.

In first place for our AFI Fest 2016 film list, and high on our Best Of list for the year, is the aforementioned Golden Lion winning film from Lav Diaz, The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo). Inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s short story, God Sees the Truth, But Waits, this exceptionally realized, nearly four-hour long drama (a short one for Lav Diaz, actually) is set in the director’s native Philippines during a kidnapping epidemic that took place in the year of 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from Great Britain to China. The Woman Who Left follows the story of Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos-Concio), a self-educated, forceful, and righteous woman who is released from prison after serving thirty years for a crime that she did not commit. Upon leaving prison, she seeks revenge on the man who framed her, an ex-lover and a wealthy crime kingpin who hides in his home in fear of being kidnapped himself. Diaz’s film slowly and meaningfully unfolds into a complex final statement on fate and forgiveness in the face of corruption that is led by the government and the Catholic Church, who together appear in league against the basic needs of the common people.

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Still from Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left

Issues of hypocrisy within the Catholic Church and the devastation that it causes are also the subject of another one of our favorites from AFI Fest 2016, Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation of Philippe Djian’s controversial 2012 novel, Oh…. Isabelle Huppert delivers her usually brilliant performance as Michèle LeBlanc, the CEO of a videogame company who bears the shame of being the daughter of one of France’s most infamous mass murderers, a Catholic zealot who, during a crisis of faith, decides to brutally slaughter a neighborhood of parents and children. Early in Elle, Michèle is brutally raped but refuses to report the crime and allows for further transgressions against her as part of a self-imposed penance brought on by Catholic guilt. As the violent atonement proceeds, the identity of the rapist and his relationship with Michèle emerge as an allegory for the unholy alliance between the traditionally vilified Semitic participation in banking and the pious and benevolent public appearance of the Roman Catholic Church. More volatile than anything released in this decade so far, Elle, has been selected as France’s entry into the 2017 Academy Awards and rises as one of the finest films of Paul Verhoeven’s long, turbulent career.  

One of the biggest surprises of this year’s AFI Fest came via the New Auteurs programming section with Buster’s Mal Heart, the second feature by Sarah Adina Smith, who directed the unique and regrettably overlooked 2014 film, The Midnight Swim. Much will be made of the layered performance of Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) as Jonah in Buster’s Mal Heart, and this praise is indeed deserved, but much credit has to be given to Smith for making an exceptional drama that, although is set in and around the Y2K panic of 1999, presents an excellent allegory for disenfranchised people today who find themselves economically and racially out of sync with the current version of a successful society. Smith deftly balances the present and past through memories and dream logic to create an antihero who in appearance seems insane but in reality may have the key to survival. Generoso sat down with Sarah Adina Smith during AFI Fest to discuss her film in depth. You can read the interview here.

Cristian Mungiu, who along with Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu, represents the leading force behind the Romanian New Wave of the last decade. Both Puiu and Porumboiu have released features over the last few years to varying levels of acclaim, but Mungiu has been oddly silent since his 2012 film, Beyond The Hills, which earned the Best Screenplay prize that year at Cannes. Arguably the most revered of his Romanian peers, Mungiu returned to AFI this year with his Palme d’Or nominated and Best Director at Cannes winning family drama, Graduation (Bacalaureat). Adrian Titieni portrays philandering surgeon, Romeo Aldea, who is trying to balance relations between his wife, his mistress, and the one person he truly loves, his college-aged daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus). Even though Romeo is a ranking surgeon at the local hospital, his distinguished career doesn’t pay him enough to afford to send Eliza abroad to Cambridge University, a dream that he desires for her seemingly more than she does for herself. When Eliza is violently attacked on the street the day before her state exams, she performs poorly on the first of the exam series, which puts her scholarship in jeopardy. Left with few options, Romeo must engage in unethical favor peddling in order to secure his daughter a high grade on the second and final exam. Cristian Mungiu’s talents in encapsulating larger issues within his country into a small personal drama are in full display in Graduation, a film that does not strive for the sense of frenetic tragedy of his previous film, Beyond The Hills, yet it is no less gripping due to the moral struggles behind the decisions that his characters need to make.

The fractured state of society was a consistent theme throughout many of the strongest films in this year’s festival, and one of the finest examples came from the brutally honest storytelling of veteran director Ken Loach in his Palme d’Or winning tale, I, Daniel Blake. For the entirety of his fifty-plus year career, Ken Loach has called out the woes of society, whether it is the racism that falls upon the schoolteacher in 2004’s Ae Fond Kiss…, the dangers of privatizing British Rail in his 2001 film,The Navigators, and everything in between that befalls the working-class protagonists in the episodes of his own BBC series that aired back in the 1960s, The Wednesday Play. In I, Daniel Blake, veteran BBC actor, Dave Johns plays the titular character, Daniel, a middle-aged carpenter who has suffered a heart attack and has been ordered by his doctor to remain unemployed to heal. After a poorly performed physical incorrectly classifies him as being fit for work, Daniel is forced to systematically hunt for a job so that he can be become eligible for unemployment insurance. One day while asking for assistance at the unemployment office, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two children who is also getting the bureaucratic runaround. These two marginalized people soon become platonic friends who try and help each other survive while the broken system that is supposed to assist them begins to miserably fail. There is no silver lining here, as Loach clearly lays  on all of the tragedy stemming from globalization combined with a government that is woefully inadequate in compensating for the failing economy. Our packed screening of I, Daniel Blake was eerily silent with the only exception being the sound of crying from the audience, which was most likely composed of many people who, given the Monday early afternoon time slot, had a lot in common with our film’s heroes.

On a lighter but no less contemporarily-relevant front is the Finnish film based on a real-life event, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies), the second feature from director, Juho Kuosmanen. Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) is about to become the 1962 World Featherweight Boxing Champion, a title predicted and desired by everyone in Finland except for Olli Mäki himself. Olli has just met Raija (Oona Airola), the love of his life, so the fact that the current champion from the United States, Davey Moore, is flying in for a title fight, which will be seen by thousands of his countrymen at the stadium in Helsinki, now seems of lesser importance. Are his love for Raija and the manager-mandated absence of her causing this doubt in Olli? Is his doubt about fighting against a proven champion or the non-stop commercial hype machine around him that makes the whole event seem like a long con making him nihilistic about winning? Expertly shot in glorious black and white by cinematographer, J.P. Passi, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a cynical, albeit sweet retelling of this small moment in Finnish sports history that meant more to the actual people involved away from the ring than those inside of it. We met up with director Juho Kuosmanen and cinematographer J.P. Passi at the Roosevelt Hotel right after the AFI Fest wrapped up to find out more about their inspiration and production methods for the film. You can read their thoughts in that conversation here.

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The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki Q&A

Hong Sang-soo has built a body of work based on a formula that relies on his main character’s self-destruction. In most of Hong’s films, we see a relationship fall apart; sometimes we see it begin; sometimes we see it repair, and all of these activities occur in a warped sense of time where the present is never the present, and the past is not the only past. Yourself and Yours is true to the purest of this signature Hong form. In this most recent film, Youngsoo (Kim Joohyuck) struggles to trust his beautiful girlfriend Minjung (Lee Youyoung), and as a result, the two part ways. As he attempts to recover from the breakup, we, as the audience, see Minjung take on multiple personas as she spends time with various men. We gradually get a sense that these personas represent all of the ways that Youngsoo and his meddling friends look at her, and quickly, we realize that in all of these different versions of Minjung, we have lost the true Minjung, or we may have never known her at all because she might have never existed. This confusion surrounding the truest form of Minjung amplifies because all of the men who show affection for Minjung in her different states are creators who may also look at her in some idealized form. Youngsoo himself is an artist. One man (Hong favorite Kwon Haehyo) is a writer. Another (Yu Junsang) is a director. So, we must ask: is Minjung just a muse that cannot be reached for all of these men? Is the real Minjung not Minjung at all because “Minjung” is just the name of a heightened representation of a woman of another name who exists in reality? Hong does not provide a direct answer to the identity of Minjung, for what is most important in the film is the shedding of all of the perceptions of Minjung (or not Minjung) in order to allow Youngsoo to love unconditionally. Yourself and Yours could have benefitted from a more cinematically expansive visual style (it looks more like 2010’s Oki’s Movie than 2015’s Right Now, Wrong Then or 2011’s The Day He Arrives), but its small screen look does help the film feel like a derailed soap opera romance that is steering wildly onto no clear path into a place where no soap opera has gone before.

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Still from Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours

Winner of the American Independents Audience Award at AFI Fest 2016, Donald Cried exemplifies the strengths of American Independent cinema: simple premises with sharp execution, solid dialog, impeccable acting, and characters and energy that remind you, sometimes too much, of moments in real life. Director Kris Avedisian stars as the title character, Donald, the metalhead who never quite grew up but has a humble sweetness to him that always reminds you of being a teenager, and in contrast to Avedisian, Jesse Wakeman portrays Pete Latang, an uptight stockbroker who left his former life in Warwick, Rhode Island behind for a more serious Manhattan city life. Set in the dreadful, gray, slushy New England winter, Donald Cried focuses entirely on Pete’s return home to tie up various affairs in the wake of his grandmother’s death. When Pete arrives back to Warwick, he hopes to quietly return and leave without notice; however, fate wants something else, and Pete loses his wallet in transit, and his only transportation, a car frozen in the driveway of his grandmother’s house, fails, so he must cross the street and ask for the help of his neighbor and childhood friend, Donald. As Pete and Donald spend time together, we constantly feel uncomfortable about how little Pete wants the reunion and how much Donald does, and, sometimes, we do not know what to do but laugh to try to release the discomfort. Donald Cried plays with Pete’s guilt and how it manifests in his own demeanor and Donald’s actions, and by the end, regardless of who you identify more with, you empathize with both, even if you are neither a cold stockbroker nor a loveable metalhead, because both men are acutely aware of their past and current worlds, which simultaneously unite them while guaranteeing that their futures will be apart from each other. Avedisian overwhelmingly succeeds with his debut feature; his scope, humor, pacing, and setting for Donald Cried are all just right, and together they create a film that reminds us of why we really cannot go home again—especially if we try to do so on purpose or by accident.

One of the finest debut feature films from this year’s AFI Fest is the highly stylized satire on upper middle class apathetic Brazilian youth from director Anita Rocha da Silveira, Kill Me Please (Mate-me por favor). Our often grotesque social commentary film begins with a murder of a call girl that leads to more and more bodies turning up in the fields of the West Side Zone neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, where a group of teenaged girls led by Bia (Valentina Herszage), Michele (Julia Roliz), Mariana (Mariana Oliveira) and Renata (Dora Freind) sort of go to high school, text constantly, perform dance routines for imaginary cameras, and gossip their way through the bloodbath, with the growing carnage providing our pack of teens the necessary faux concern needed to balance their lives against unlimited opportunities of banal, ill-advised sexual adventures. Kill Me Please is a riveting and fast-paced critique of apathetic youth that goes out of its way to avoid exploitation while consistently playing with you in a visually inventive way, compelling you to watch it all unfold into a kind of sick glee.

In his debut feature film, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, Dash Shaw takes all of his best techniques from his comics and pushes them into the time-based medium of animation to create a visually alluring whir of moving painted backgrounds and shifting colors, patterns, and textures paired with a story about redemption, love, and friendship. Dash (Jason Schwartzman) and Assaf (Reggie Watts) are writing partners. Dash has a flair for the fantastic, and Assaf has a preference for journalistic integrity; and together, they write stories for their DIY paper. When the editor, Verti (Maya Rudolph), convinces Assaf that the pair should write separately, Dash lashes out at them with libel and ends up alone, leading him to the discovery that his high school is not up to building code, so the heralded new rooftop addition will cause the school to plunge into the nearby sea the moment the earth trembles, which it does. Though My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea shares its foundation with any classic coming-of-age tale, it has Shaw’s characteristic whimsy, humor, and awkwardness, which makes the film far funnier and more engaging than most John Hughes-esque films about teenage angst and paths to maturity. The film fuels itself on the absurdity of teenagers’ myopic perspectives on their own world, even in times of crisis, and as a result, even though the film does structure itself around Dash and Assaf’s reconciliation, the major hero of the film is the wise Lunch Lady Lorrain (wonderfully voiced by Susan Sarandon), the burly lady who looks at her job as a responsibility to the wellness of the students and who, in turn, saves many in the wreckage by strapping them onto her body and carrying them as she navigates through the disaster. For the animation style, Shaw and lead animator Jane Samborski take visual cues from American Pop, Spider-Man, and Yellow Submarine, so My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea has wonderfully psychedelic imagery that mesmerizes, which compensates for the moments where some of the voice acting from Schwartzman and Watts fail or the moments where the plot gets a little too clumsy. We had a chance to speak with Dash Shaw about the labor-intensive process behind the making of his film; you can read the conversion here.  

Inspired by her own pregnancy, Alice Lowe wrote, directed, and starred in Prevenge. Always enchanting, Lowe has been an actress for Ben Wheatley and Simon Pegg, and if you love Snuff Box as much as we do, you also may remember her excellent take on David Bowie. In Prevenge, Lowe plays Ruth, a pregnant young woman who has recently lost her partner in a climbing accident. Ruth’s baby seems to have more than a touch of evil in her, and she speaks to Ruth and encourages her to murder people. As the bodies pile up, we begin to see that the victims may have played a role in the death of Ruth’s partner, but Ruth’s motivation for vengeance may not actually come from her apparently sinister baby. The first half of Prevenge struggles to find its identity, tripping in between a slapstick comedy and a visceral slasher, so some of the early killings have too much of an awkward campy feel to them, but by the end Lowe focuses the tone into one of direness, and Prevenge becomes a well-crafted, introspective work of psychological horror. Throughout the film, Lowe is excellent, playing Ruth sympathetically while slowly conveying her broken psyche, and as a result Prevenge is a fun little flick that will be perfect for midnight screenings at your favorite arthouse theater.

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Prevenge Q&A with director Alice Lowe

Charlie Lyne’s engrossing second feature, Fear Itself, is a sometimes effective cinematic essay on the artistic method of creating fear within the horror genre. The entirety of Lyne’s film utilizes horror clips from the well known to the rare, which range in era from classic works like Murnau’s 1922 film, Nosferatu, to David Robert Mitchell’s critically praised 2014 scarefest, It Follows, in order to illustrate how the genre uses the calm, the buildup, and in some cases the actual delivery of terror to draw your fear. Using a similar method to Mark Rappaport’s video experiments, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg, Lyne differentiates himself from Rappaport by only using over-narration, which is provided by actress Fairuza Balk, whose unemotional delivery of the film’s core thesis begins to drone on about thirty minutes into the watch, as her voice eventually gets superseded by the thoroughly intense imagery onscreen. The final result of Fear Itself is a piece of cinephiliac porn that is more entertainment than it is essay.

One of the most exciting parts of AFI Fest is the opportunity to see award-winning features from international filmmakers, and we were looking forward to seeing Ralitza Petrova’s Golden Leopard winning, debut feature Godless (Bezbog). The film is already being compared to Barbara Loden’s Wanda, but it lacks something essential to that seminal film that starred the director and writer herself: minimalism that unrelentingly commits to its central character. Though uncompromised in its severe mood and tone, Godless fails to place complete focus on the fascinating protagonist of the film, Gana (Irena Ivanova), a morphine-addicted nurse who sells her elderly patients’ ID cards to people who use them to open up fraudulent credit accounts. Gana is unfazed by most things; the blatant corruption of the police officer and judge that she works for does not bother her. Her complicitness in the accidental murder of one of her patients does not shake her. However, Yoan, a former prisoner under Bulgaria’s communist rule, finally begins to change her, but only too late, and Gana will need to find her own way to pay for her sins. Over the course of Godless, moments with Gana are meditative and intimate, so much so that you never want Irena Ivanova to leave the screen. Consequently, when we see scenes such as the corrupt judge and police chief chatting before entering an orgy or the close up of a funeral wake in an ornate church, they add contextual drama to the film and underscore the direness of the society Gana lives in, but they interrupt our study of Gana and the nuances of her transformation, which are the strength of the film. As a debut feature, Godless has promise in it, although it falls short of any of the careful studies of a person attempting to navigate a crumbling societal structure seen in Cristian Mungiu’s films, including the aforementioned Graduation.

Drawing an editing style from Stan Brakhage, Dean Fleischer-Camp’s 52 minute spastic ode to the evils of consumerism, Fraud, shows us a family in credit freefall. The film begins with our family of four going on a teenaged spending spree at the local mall before coming to the shocking realization that the bills will soon be coming due. As the debt mounts, mom and dad torch the home and take the kids on a trip with their ill gotten insurance funds. All of this is captured by the dad-child who never lets go of the camera—he even goes so far as to film the arson (yes, I thought that was a bit much as well). Even though they know that the law is in hot pursuit of them, our band of plastic card wielding villains still stop a few times to take in the sights, pick up survivalist-grade firearms, and eventually make it over the Canadian border for some more shopping with the bonus of an even higher sales tax rate. Fraud ends with Fleischer-Camp’s essential cautionary tale about globalization and consumerism, which is delivered loud and clear and at about the right length.  

The most disappointing aspect of Joshua Locy’s debut feature, Hunter Gatherer, is the waste of an excellent performance by the film’s star, Andre Royo, who most audiences know from The Wire and more recently Empire. Andre Royo plays Ashley, a neurotic, recently released from prison, middle-aged man who must live with his mother while figuring out his next move. One day, while trying to sell a ladder, Ashley befriends a simple man named Jeremy (in a fine performance from George Sample III), who Ashley cons into helping him with his refrigerator disposal business. Not satisfied with just having a good friend and business partner, Ashley heartlessly hooks up with Jeremy’s aunt, Nat (Kellee Stewart), while still relentlessly hounding his ex-girlfriend Linda to pick up where they left off. Royo is the shining star of Locy’s debut film, which sadly borrows too much of its style, both visually and in offbeat character construction, from the early films of his colleague, David Gordon Green. Locy, having worked as an art director on previous Green efforts, Prince Avalanche and Manglehorn, should have infused the film with more of his own style as Hunter Gatherer, despite a few fine performances, comes off as just a pale imitation of Green’s best early work.

It has been a dozen years since Yang Chao won Special Mention at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for his film Passages, where a young couple go on a planes, trains, and a slow boat escapade through Mainland China in the search for a special wild mushroom that becomes a metaphor for dissatisfied Chinese youth. Yang was immediately lumped into the “Sixth Generation” movement of Chinese cinema, but Passages, though promising, offered a commentary that was nowhere near the level of scathing social critique that Jia Zhangke, a true member of the movement, had displayed with The World, which was released in the same year. After twelve years, Yang has returned with master cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping Bin (In the Mood for Love, Café Lumière), to deliver Crosscurrent (Chang jiang tu), a meticulously shot, pretentious bore of a feature that works more like a picturesque National Geographic triptych up the Yangtze River for Western audiences than an acute cultural statement of present day China. A writer travels by boat and makes love Wong Kar-wai style with the same woman at each stop. Literary references abound, and the whole film exists as a metaphor between humanity and art and the eternal with absolutely no desire to establish a link between the characters and the changing landscape in order to draw you into the allegory.  

When Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska took the stage before the screening of her debut feature, the musical mermaid film, The Lure (Córki dancingu), she proudly announced that she comes from the country of Krzysztof Kieślowski, but as he hated musicals, her country never makes them. Well, if Krzysztof were alive, I doubt that he would sway from his position as The Lure does nothing to advance the genre, and it even fails to just simply entertain you. The Lure is the story of a pair of entrancing mermaid sisters who find a home in a tawdry cabaret. One of the sisters enjoys the humans and demands love from them, while the other sister views the humans as a food source. Smoczynska throws “shocking” sexuality and campy tunes your way in the hopes that you will be happy with telling your friends that you have seen a sexy Polish mermaid musical.

Sadly, the film that received more than a few awards at this year’s AFI Fest was one of the most feeble attempts at a crime-drama, coming-of-age film that we have seen in some time. Houda Benyamina’s Divines is a wretched blending of high-gloss Hollywood style (with a bit of cellphone video for that “edgy” touch) and a dizzying collection of cinematic clichés, most of which were borderline infuriating to watch. It is as though Benyamina thought that she was doing something unique in giving a contemporary update to a thirties gangster film, or if she was actually trying to be hard-hitting, you must wonder if she has ever seen a Jacques Audiard film before making Divines, the story of Dounia (Oulaya Amamra), a teenaged girl who grows up in a Roma camp and dreams of becoming a drug dealer to get out of her predicament. As clichés abound, Dounia must have the good hearted friend who goes along for the ride, only to end up caught in the crossfire, and the love interest, a dancer who our budding crime kingpin spends days watching from the rafters of a local theater. I assume that most of the credit goes to Divines for switching the gender of the protagonist, but this is a paltry nuance for a genre that has already been done to exhaustion.  

What in the world has happened to Kim Ki-duk? The once promising director of Bad Guy, 3-Iron, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring has degenerated into a sloppy, melodramatic mess as of late, and no film typifies his recent downfall more than The Net. With his new film, Kim reduces the ideological struggle between North and South Korea into what appears like a Lifetime Channel family drama that uses the ethos of both nations as convenient plot devices to further a thin narrative about a North Korean fisherman whose net gets caught in his motor, which forces him to drift into South Korea where he is arrested and detained as a spy. Kim clumsily presents South Korea as a hypocritical state that boasts of peace while under the rule of rampant, soulless consumerism where decent women are forced into prostitution, and brutal cops offer no semblance of fair treatment. These may very well be true critiques, but the manner by which they are handled here leaves these claims as unfounded as names called across a school yard. The performances are quite poor overall, as is the film’s visual aesthetic that looks more like a student project than the 21st feature film of a veteran director.  

We were massively underwhelmed by Maren Ade’s previous directorial effort, 2009’s Everyone Else, a toothless romantic drama that was utterly flat in its concept and execution. Since then, Ade has thankfully stayed away from directing, concentrating her efforts on production, which have resulted in two of our favorite films of this decade, both by Miguel Gomes—2012’s Tabu, and our favorite film of this year, the three-part masterpiece that is Arabian Nights. Given these production successes with Gomes combined with unparalleled positive reviews, we were indeed excited to see Ade’s nearly three-hour father-daughter comedy, Toni Erdmann, that unfortunately we will now refer to as the biggest disappointment of this year’s AFI Fest. Inspired by Andy Kaufman’s audacious alter-ego Tony Clifton, Toni Erdmann is just a slightly ruder Capra-esque father-daughter story about an uptight, cutthroat businesswoman named Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is brought back to humanity by her wild and crazy dad Toni, who poses as a “consultant and coach” for the chief executive of Ines’s company in an attempt to teach his child a lesson. I suppose that brandishing Austin Powers-styled fake teeth qualifies as great German comedy these days, which in and of itself is quite sad, but Toni Erdmann’s ham-handed attempts at social commentary are even more clichéd and painful to watch than its attempts at humor.

On the last day of AFI we were invited to the Awards Brunch, a lovely event which was held in the same grandiose room that a few nights earlier had housed the Elle gala after party. There were a few surprises in the awards that were announced that morning, and AFI has been kind enough to list those winners here. We must note that we were thrilled that one of the more impressive short films that we saw, The Send Off, a heartfelt look at the prom preparations and festivities of students in a depressed rural American town, was honored. Directed by Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan, the short film was presented with a Live Action Short Special Mention for Documentary. The brunch also gave us the opportunity to talk with other critics about this year’s strong programming at AFI, and to give a special thanks to a few of our favorite volunteers and AFI Staffer, Johanna Calderón-Dakin, whose assistance was invaluable in helping to set up interviews and press screenings. See you all next year!

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Generoso with legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple